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Ambassador William Burns Reflects On a Career in Diplomacy

Two former U.S. ambassadors to Russia recently shared the stage at the Freeman Spogli Institute, where they discussed the Arab Spring, their mutual respect for former President Barack Obama, and of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

William Burns — the Russian ambassador from 2005 to 2008 — told Freeman Spogli Institute Director Michael McFaul — who was in the position from 2012 to 2014 — that Putin is a “combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity all wrapped up together.”

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Standing at about 5 feet and 6 inches tall, Putin is not the most physically intimidating person in the world, but he carries himself with self-assurance, Burns said.

“He told me, ‘You Americans need to listen more — you can’t just have everything your own way,’” Burns said of his first meeting with Putin. “That was vintage Putin…it was not subtle, it was defiantly charmless, but it was quite direct.”

Burns talked about his experience in the Foreign Service, which began at the height of the Cold War in the early ‘80s. Because most of his research in graduate school focused on the Middle East, Burns said he spent two years perfecting the Russian language at the beginning of his career.

“You can’t operate in a place like Russia unless you speak the language well,” Burns said. “Moscow in those days was one of the biggest embassies we had in the world. As creepy as the relationship can be, Russia is still a place that matters.”

Burns said that while former President George H.W. Bush, his Secretary of State James Baker, and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft made their share of mistakes during Bush’s tenure in office, the former president and his team deserve a lot of credit for what they accomplished in Russia and the Middle East.

“In hindsight, Germany’s reunification within less than a year after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall — and ensuring that the reunification of Germany would remain within NATO — was not a small achievement,” he said. “That took real skill, and it was not inevitable.”

When asked by McFaul whether the U.S. should have been more aggressive in pushing the burgeoning Russian leaders in a more democratic direction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Burns said he thinks Russia would have been resistant to an “intrusive” American role in their economy at that time.  

“Russians — at the end of the Cold War, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union — had suffered a real crisis in their own confidence,” he said. “I’ve never really bought the argument that a Marshall Plan-scale set of assistance for Russia or the former soviet states in that period would have been that productive. Russia’s future after the end of communism was something that only Russia could shape in the end.”

Shifting focus to the past decade, Burns said that he “always had huge respect for President Obama’s long game in the Middle East,” adding that he thought the former president was unfairly criticized for wanting to disengage the U.S. from the Middle East during his time in office.

“The Arab revolts unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria were on a scale and at a pace which would have been hard for any president to adapt to,” Burns said. “On the surface they looked very similar, but they were unfolding in different societies, in different ways … a concern with which I deeply sympathized was not getting dragged into another big military intervention in the Middle East.”